SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - A DAY OF HISTORY CONCLUDES WESTERN SWING
OH YEAH! - Courtney Force's perpetual smile, her conversation that runs 100 mph with gusts up to 150, and her love for National Hot Rod Association Funny Car racing draw natural comparison with her famous father, 15-time champion John Force.
But it's clear to see the one big difference. "She's prettier than me," her dad would wisecrack. Aside from being one of few fresh-faced representatives of drag racing's future, the obvious contrast is what leaps off her ledger sheet. She captured her first professional victory in just her third final race -- in her rookie season, winning the O'Reilly Northwest Nationals.
At the top end of the track, her father, feigning disbelief, said, "It took me 15 years to get my first victory! What's wrong with this?!" But John Force couldn't have been prouder.
And the sanctioning body struck marketing gold Sunday at Pacific Raceways, just south of Seattle, as Courtney Force not only celebrated Ladies Day in the winners circle with Pro Stock's Erica Enders but also local sportsman racer Megan Ellingson in the Super Street class.
(Force and Enders also were finalists at Chicago, when Enders scored her historic victory and the Funny Car rookie was runner-up to Jeff Arend. This time they both got to hoist trophies. Ellingson won her first national event Sunday.)
It marked the first time in NHRA history that two women have won in professional classes on the same day.
The Traxxas Ford Mustang driver joined her father and older sister Ashley Force Hood as a Funny Car winner. That rewrote a chapter of the sport's history, too, for it was the first time the Funny Car class has had three female winners. Courtney Force, her sister, and Melanie Troxel form that club.
In making her third final round in the past five races, Force was seeking her second career victory and second at Seattle. She earned her first Wally statue in 2009 at Pacific Raceways in Jerry Darien's Top Alcohol Dragster.
She had said of Pacific Raceways as the Seattle race approached that she was "really hoping this is my lucky track." The year after she claimed her sportsman victory, in 2010, she rode out a scary incident here in which the right rear tire of her A/Fuel Dragster exploded as she raced Mike Austin. She was unhurt, and she had demonstrated her driving skills by keeping the car from hitting the wall or endangering Austin. This time the facility was her lucky track for happier reasons.
"I honestly am still in shock" she said. "I think I'm still shaking. I mean, coming back out here to Seattle, there are some good memories and some bad. I had my first win out here in Top Alcohol Dragster which was such a huge accomplishment for me just to even have a Wally in my house. At the moment I was telling my dad, 'I can't wait to have a Funny Car Wally in my house,' because you know what?" she said after defeating Cruz Pedregon, Bob Tasca, and her dad en route to the finals. "Dad has way more than enough. So he can't be mad at me for taking him out in the semis. It's been an amazing day."
Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing, offered "a big congratulations to Courtney, the TRAXXAS Ford Mustang Funny Car team, and everyone at John Force Racing who has helped in Courtney's development." Said Allison, "That apple did not fall far from the tree. With her talent and experience, we knew she'd celebrate her first win sooner rather than later. We and all Ford fans are delighted to see her win the Wally as a rookie."
Courtney Force's dad has more victories at Seattle than anyone else (seven), cheered her on as she became the 13th different woman to win an NHRA national event.
"Shirley [Muldowney] started it all," John Force said of the women's movement in drag racing, "but these are the young kids. They're the future of the sport."
Her immediate future is heading to Brainerd, Minn,, in two weeks for the penultimate event before the Countdown. She's sixth in the standings after this 15th of 23 races on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour.
John Force, who Courtney said is trying to process the complicated job of "being a parent, boss, and teacher all at the same time, praised his daughter's professionalism.
"She really did it herself out there today," he said. "What amazes me the most about her is she really does talk --she is kind of wired up like me -- but she has that coolness like her mom."
For example, he said, "Before the final she said, 'Dad, my helmet has a big old scratch down the middle of the visor.' I went into full panic mode on the starting line. She said it was OK, because she could see the tree to the right of the scratch. Me, I would have been pulling my helmet off. I am just proud of her today."
So, actually, was Hagan.
"Every guy worries about losing to a girl, but I don't at all,” Hagan said after she won with a 4.238-second elapsed time at 293.54 mph on the 1,000-foot course to his 4.328-second pass at 276.58 mph in the Aaron's Dodge Charger. "She's a great driver and doing a heck of a job. She's driving the wheels off that thing."
Hagan, Don Schumacher Racing's last hope Sunday to extend its winning streak to nine events, moved him up to 11th place in the standings, within 42 points of earning that Countdown berth.
More importantly, he's trying to compile as many points as he can in his effort to break into the top 10 and earn a berth in the Countdown. Hagan started race day in 12th place, 91 points out of 10th. This second consecutive final-round appearance bumped him up the order one position. So as the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour shifts to Brainerd, Minn., in two weeks, Hagan is 11th in the standings, 42 away from No. 10 Bob Tasca and 49 behind John Force, who climbed to No. 9 with his semifinal finish.
"We still have to a lot to make up," Hagan said. "We're getting there. We're doing what we need to do. We have to keeping winning rounds, and the momentum is there. I'm just tickled to death to go some rounds today and have some fun doing it.
"That's the biggest thing you have to look at. We're having fun again. It's been a very humbling season so far, and we have a lot of making up to do," he said.
Hagan has struggled with a 4-12 round-win record that included eight first-round defeats and a DNQ and spectacular engine explosion at Charlotte during his anything-but-glamorous championship reign.
"You do appreciate it more now when you get a chance to run for the trophy," he said. "I feel for my guys, because they did the same amount of work the last two races as the guys on the winning teams, and we haven't gotten there. But that's just racing. We have to keep a positive attitude and keep this rolling.
"We have great guys and we are still a championship team," Hagan said. "It was just a matter of time until Tommy [crew chief Tommy DeLago] got a handle on it again. We're all human, and sometime we question ourselves. I'm not disappointed in this weekend or last weekend."
ENDERS WINS AGAIN - What a difference a week makes.
Last Sunday as Erica Enders exited her Chevrolet Cobalt Pro Stocker after a stinging second round loss, she was met by a disgruntled male driver expressing his displeasure over a perceived show of poor sportsmanship. This week she exited to a different kind of man, one molded in silver.
Enders was presented with a silver anniversary Wally trophy for winning the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Northwest Nationals by beating defending series champion Jason Line in the final round. She ran a 6.641, 209.61 pass to defeat Line’s 6.631, 209.72.
“This is as sweet of a win as I could hope for and I am so proud of my guys; they won this race today,” Enders said, her voice twinging with excitement. “They gave me a car to drive to the winner’s circle. Beating the drivers I did today was special because they were the ones I looked up to all my life.”
The week leading into the event had been one of tension related to the Sonoma incident where Greg Anderson called her out on the ESPN2 broadcast for actions related to a photograph he deemed unprofessional. Anderson’s decision to air the complaint on national television drew the ire of many race fans. The two patched their differences prior to reaching Seattle and Anderson apologized on Sunday’s ESPN2 broadcast after first apologizing to her.
“I don’t like drama or conflict … something I don’t dwell on at all,” admitted Enders. “Last week caught me off guard and I was blown away. I tried to talk to him right after that at the track but he didn’t want to talk much. He did call me on Tuesday and apologized. We have more important things to concern ourselves with and this is mouse nuts compared to what we have going on in the car.”
For as negative as Sonoma was, Seattle provided many positive storylines.
Enders was the No. 4 qualifier and beat Ron Krisher in the first round with the second quickest elapsed time of the round. Her victory clinched her a berth in the Countdown to the Championship.
Her next two victories were of monstrous proportions as she avenged the Sonoma loss to Anderson by outrunning him with a quicker 6.638. Then Pro Stock’s first female driver pulled off a feat no other male driver has been able to do during the Western Swing. She beat Alan Johnson.
Enders used a 6.624, 209.33 to end Johnson’s incredible 11 consecutive round winning streak. Johnson’s elimination ended the last opportunity for a driver to sweep the revered three-race west coast stretch.
Enders ran flawlessly on a hot track and gained a strong measure of confidence with a 6.609 elapsed time from the complex right lane during qualifying. Once she pulled off this feat, the rest were in cruise control.
“When I hear my guys talking calmly and cool, I am relaxed,” Enders admitted. “If I hear uncertainty, then I might worry. They told me to kill the tree that they had the rest of it.”
There was no worry on Sunday in Seattle.
“Headed into the Countdown, this is the right time to be gaining momentum,” Enders said. “Nothing will ever compare to my first win and when I saw my win-light and heard my guys yelling and as I turned the corner, I realized how blessed I am to do this.”
Enders also realized how much of a difference a week could make as well.
LIVING LUCKY - After winning his semifinal round of Seattle's O'Reilly Northwest Nationals, Top Fuel driver Steve Torrence said, "We're living lucky, and The Good Lord's looking after us."
That certainly was true Sunday, for the Capco Contractors Inc. Dragster owner-driver from Kilgore, Texas, went on to earn his third victory in his fifth final round in the past nine events, beating overdue Shawn Langdon in the Al-Anabi/Toyota Dragster.
And Torrence capped the weekend in which he clinched a berth in the National Hot Rod Association's Countdown in qualifying by enjoying the attractive company in the winners circle.
With a 4.168-second elapsed time at 261.98 mph on the Pacific Raceways 1,000-foot course, Torrence beat Langdon's 4.329, 254.57 to join Courtney Force (Funny Car) and Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Super Street's Megan Ellingson in the post-race celebration.
It didn't matter to Torrence that his victory might be overlooked in the fête of female winners. He was more concerned that he was the oldest of the three pro winners.
"I was sitting in the car in line to run and saw Erica win and then Courtney. I knew I definitely wanted to be the guy to stand in the middle of them. There was no way I wanted to lose this one," the 29-year-old single driver said. "The funny thing is we get in the cart coming back, Erica is there and Autumn [Robert Hight's daughter and Courtney's niece] and Courtney's in there -- and it dawned on me that I was the oldest one in there."
Torrence said he supported the women in their final-round battles.
"I was really cheering for Erica, and it's really cliché when you say, the hardest is the first win. After that, they are a lot easier. Erica is a great racer and driver, [has] been out here for a long time. They got their first win, and now she is confident and knows she has the car to do it. And then Courtney, that's [three] finals. She's got a super-good hot rod over there at John Force Racing, and she's a good driver."
As for his wild pedaling, tire-smoking victory, Torrence said, "Today I just won the coin toss. Any time the driver is in there, doing all he can to get down the track and beat the guy alongside him, that takes it away from the tuners and puts it in the hands of the driver.
"Shawn Langdon is a great driver, and I knew he'd be on the tree. I definitely tried to step my game up. When we went in there, I was ready. I went up there expecting the conditions to not be able to handle what we were going to throw at it. If we didn't, we were going to lose. I was ready for it when it happened, and I was sure he was, too," Torrence said. "Shawn is a great driver and friend. I've grown up racing with him all of my life.
"We were definitely working for that win today," Torrence said after beating Steve Chrisman, Khalid al Balooshi, Doug Kalitta, and al Balooshi's teammate Langdon.
"I wouldn't have story-booked it to be as good as it's been," the No. 4-ranked driver in the standings said of his first full season as an owner-driver. "We've just got a real good handle on the way things are going.
"We've been fortunate and blessed to have the means to get parts and pieces that we've needed to be here, the right people into place -- and let them do their jobs, don't micro-manage it. We're very thankful to be where we're at," he said.
He and crew chief Richard Hogan have received the highest endorsement from no less than drag-racing legend "Big Daddy" Don Garlits: "I'm real proud of him. He's a nice young man, too. And Richard is exceptionally smart."
Langdon, a Mira Loma, Calif., native living in Avon, Ind., had some big shoes to fill and some big tasks ahead of him as race day dawned.
His crew chief, Brian Husen, and team manager Alan Johnson, had tuned Del Worsham to a victory here and to the series championship last season. Langdon was seeking his first Top Fuel victory in his fifth career final round.
Before this race, he said, "With three races left in the regular season, we can move all the way up to fifth or we could drop as low as ninth. So we really need to pick up the pace a little."
He improved one place in the standings, to sixth. He's 63 points behind No. 5 Doug Kalitta and 10 ahead of No. 7 Morgan Lucas.
"It was a good day for the Al-Anabi team. It's just a little disappointing, because when you get into the final, you have your hopes set on winning the race," Langdon said. "The Al-Anabi team is definitely headed in the right direction, and the best thing about this weekend is that the Al-Anabi car ran really well. We qualified well, we were among the quickest if not the quickest in some qualifying sessions, and the car made good runs today. The race track was very tricky in the semifinals and finals. We won a tire-smoking semifinal and lost a tire-smoking final. We are continuing to learn, and we all know our first win will be here shortly. We just have to try our best and keep at it."
The 16th of 23 races on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour will be at Brainerd, Minn., in two weeks. It is the last race before the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, where the pro-class fields will be sealed for the six-race playoff that criss-crosses the country through Charlotte, Dallas, Reading (Pa.), St. Louis, Las Vegas, and Pomona (Calif.).
NEW FIGURES - A performance benchmark circulated since 2005 involving the Top Fuel and Funny car engines might be outdated.
This, according to an ESPN2 report during Sunday's NHRA coverage with a couple of drag racing’s leading tuners.
The current 8,000 horsepower estimate could actually be closer to 10,000 in light of recent parts upgrades and performances.
“I’d say it’s closer to 9,500 – 10,000,” said Jimmy Prock, tuner for two-time NHRA Funny Car series champion Robert Hight. “The biggest reason is the amount of fuel you burn once you lock the clutch up and get down the track combined with the amount of fuel the engines can burn. The timing you run affects the horsepower output quite a bit.”
Prock believes if you take into consideration the current half-track speeds (660-foot) and acceleration and amount of drag on the car to pull, the down-force provides a clearer picture.
The report confirmed some teams have installed a torque meter on the driveshaft and those readings have suggested the horsepower number exceeds 10,000 horsepower.
Mike Neff, who pulls double duty as a tuner and driver, agrees with Prock in his estimations.
“The car weights have gone up by 300 pounds in the last five years,” Neff explained. “The cars are running quicker. When you look at the mass they are moving, the distance and elapsed time … the formula will tell you the number. Based on the ETs now, they have to be making more.”
ESPN Color Commentator Mike Dunn used a formula of horsepower, weight, drag co-efficient and wheels/tires to estimate the number at 9,640.
WJ GETS WIN - When a driving resume reads 97 national event victories in 151 final rounds, with six NHRA series championships, chances are winning first round becomes second nature. Back in the day, this was the case for veteran driver Warren Johnson.
In his last couple of years as an independent racer those opening round wins have been more of a challenge for the resourceful Johnson.
Headed into this weekend’s O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Northwest Nationals in Seattle, Johnson’s last first round win came in October 2010 in Reading, Pa. - nearly two years ago.
Johnson got the monkey off of his back in Seattle by beating Shane Gray. He ran a 6.658 elapsed time at 208.46 when Gray fell off of the pace.
“This is more rewarding for my guys than anything else,” Johnson told ESPN2’s Gary Gerould after his win. “They put in so many hours. This is not a one-man show like it was twenty or thirty years ago. It’s a team effort and I guess you could say we are directionally correct right now.”
Johnson’s day ended against point leader Allen Johnson in the quarter-finals.
WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER - When Courtney Force and her Traxxas Mustang defeated Matt Hagan in the finals of the O’Reilly Auto Parts Northwest NHRA Nationals history was made and a lucky fan was also a big winner. This was her third final in five races and a 55” flat screen TV went to Colleen Strasburg of Lehi, Utah compliments of BrandSource and the “Win with Force” promotion.
“I honestly am still in shock. I think I’m still shaking. I mean, coming back out here to Seattle, there are some good memories and some bad. I had my first win out here in Top Alcohol Dragster which was such a huge accomplishment for me just to even have a Wally in my house. At the moment I was telling my dad, ‘I can’t wait to have a Funny Car Wally in my house,’ because you know what, dad has way more than enough so he can’t be mad at me for taking him out in the semis. It’s been an amazing day,” said Force, after her first career win.
At each NHRA national event when a JFR team qualifies No. 1 a lucky fan that has signed up at the JFR Win with Force display located in Nitro Alley will be eligible to win the BrandSource No. 1 Qualifier Award, a front loading washer and dryer set. If a JFR driver wins the event a different fan will win the 55” flat screen TV Winner’s Circle Award from BrandSource. At the end of the season a grand prize winner of the “Win with Force” Sweepstakes will be awarded a 2013 Ford Fiesta.
Fans can sign up to win at the John Force Racing interactive midway display. This 53-foot trailer will be in the Nitro Alley area of every NHRA Full Throttle Series national event in 2012. The “Win with Force” promotion now includes JFR team partners Castrol, BrandSource, Ford, AAA Auto Club of Southern California, Mac Tools, and Pleasant Holidays all joining together to create an incredible promotion for the fans.
MAKING THINGS RIGHT - Greg Anderson’s comments about unsportsmanlike actions attributed to driver Erica Enders on ESPN2 last week created a firestorm of controversy. Yesterday Anderson apologized for bringing his comments to national television.
“First of all, I apologize for the interview. I apologize for bringing this to national TV,” Anderson told ESPN2. “That shouldn’t have been done. I made a mistake there. That should have been handled behind closed doors. Since then we’ve spoke, we’ve had words, Erica and I think 100-percent understand where each other comes from on the issues. The both of us realized we don’t need that distraction. We have more important things to do. We’re trying to chase down Allen Johnson.”
Anderson’s comments last Sunday in Sonoma drew the ire of many race fans who voiced their displeasure of the Summit Racing-sponsored driver via Facebook, Twitter and many drag racing message boards.
Case in point, the article on CompetitionPlus.com describing the exchange drew over 150 Facebook comments, many of which could not be posted on the magazine’s page due to profanity-laced comments critical of Anderson.
Enders confirmed as CompetitionPlus.com reported on July 29 the issue stemmed from a photo taken beside Anderson’s trailer following her victory at the O’Reilly NHRA Route 66 Nationals. The picture shows Enders holding her trophy at the urging of her sponsor Gaston Kearby. The photo became an internet sensation.
Anderson, who lost to Enders in the final round, took offense to the picture.
“My sponsor wanted the picture and it kinda meant as ‘we finally beat this guy … like he’s the best in the world,” explained Enders. “I’ve been very clear about how I respect him and their team. There was no disrespect meant by the photo. Anybody who knows me would know that. It could have been solved, plain and simple, behind closed doors. It happened and it is what it is. He apologized.”
Enders she’s willing to apologize too.
“If I hurt his feelings, I have no problem apologizing to him,” Enders said. “I’ve told him that. We’ve put the whole thing behind us and I guess we will go from there.”
Anderson is ready to move forward as well leaving the controversy behind.
“We’re over it, it’s time to go forward … it’s a nonissue right now,” Anderson concluded.
TOP FUEL QUARTERFINALS DRAMATIC - The Top Fuel quarterfinal round was loaded with a Western Swing disappointment, bad news for Don Schumacher Racing, a mixed bag for the Al-Anabi Racing team, and lots of tire smoke.
Shawn Langdon, who entered this race with a sub-.500 record and has had sporadic success this year, ended Antron Brown's chance to become the first to sweep the Western Swing twice. Langdon, in the Al-Anabi Dragster, sped away from Brown to reach his fourth semifinal and said, "We wanted to stop him from sweeping the swing, and we wanted to get these Al-Anabi cars going."
Brown congratulated Langdon's team and said he's proud of his own.
"Ain't nothin' to hold our heads down [about]. Our team did a fantastic job over the Western Swing," Brown said. "Man, we're going home with two Wallys, so we're holding our heads up high."
Brown's exit wasn't the only shock for DSR, which had double victories three of the previous five races (at Bristol, Denver, and Sonoma). Tony Schumacher red-lit -- for the first time here since 2000, two races before he announced his U.S. Army sponsorship -- against Doug Kalitta. Schumacher was the No. 2 qualifier. The top qualifier, his DSR colleague Spencer Massey (who had edged him for the honors on speed after they ran identical 3.837-second elapsed times), also dropped out. No. 9 Dave Grubnic, in the Optima Batteries Dragster, defeated him, 3.958 to 5.067.
For Al-Anabi Racing, the results balanced each other, for Khalid al Balooshi, who had advanced to his second quarterfinal of year, lost to Steve Torrence by a half-car length on a holeshot. Torrence was as happy with the fact the car went straight, unlike it did in the first round, as he was with the victory.
Torrence had zigged and zagged all over the left lane in beating Steve Chrisman but managed to keep his Capco Contractors Inc. Dragster off both the center line and the guard wall in the opening round. He said after eliminating al Balooshi, We needed to make a nice, clean run. These Capco guys are really bringing it to the table."
FUNNY CAR ROUND 2 HAS PLAYOFF IMPLICATIONS - Current but calamity-plagued Funny Car champion Matt Hagan is inching closer to his immediate goal of making the field for the Countdown, picking up a few more points as the clock continues to tick.
He qualified No. 5, which gave him confidence and lane choice against Jeff Arend. After he knocked off Arend, the Aaron's Dodge Charger driver beat strong-running DSR teammate Johnny Gray, who struck the tires on his Big O Tires/SpeeDee Oil Change & Tune-Up Dodge.
Another DSR mate had the chance to help him later in the round. Jack Beckman faced John Force, who is trying to hang onto the 10th and final position. But Force, in the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, won that match-up and set up a semifinal appointment with youngest daughter, Courtney.
"All parents live for their children," John Force said, sounding a bit like he was cheering for his leading rookie-of-the-year-contender daughter in their upcoming faceoff. "That's where my head is. I can't get out of it. I want so much for this girl to excel."
NAPA Dodge Charger driver Ron Capps, the fourth DSR driver to make it to the quarterfinals, won over Tim Wilkerson. That halted the Levi, Ray & Shoup/Diversified Yacht Mustang driver's Pacific Raceways steak at three.
"I didn't know he was that hot," Capps said of Wilkerson.
After they climbed from their cars at the top end, Wilkerson walked over to Capps and said, "You know, there's a script for this race -- and you're not following it."
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - JOCKEYING FOR QUALIFYING POSITION AND POSSIBLE SWEEPS
THE SWEEP IS SECONDARY - Allen Johnson knows he could become a part of National Hot Rod Association history Sunday afternoon.
As the so-called Western Swing winds downs with O'Reilly Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways near Seattle, the Denver and Sonoma winner could become the second Pro Stock driver, following Greg Anderson, to hit the trifecta.
Johnson isn't getting his broom out just yet, but he has it handy after securing his sixth consecutive No. 1 qualifying position and ninth of the year in his menacing Team Mopar / J&J Dodge Avenger. He did it on the strength of Friday's 6.554-second, 211.66-mph performance.
Mastering this 5,700-mile swing of three races in as many weeks is not Johnson's primary focus for Sunday, but the Greeneville, Tenn., racer said it would be a pretty cool feather in his cap.
"Any time you put your name in the record books of any kind in this sport, it's awesome," Johnson said. "The Western Swing has a certain aura about it. It'd be great to be the eighth person to do that.
"We'll just take it round by round and try to make good runs. And I'll try to drive good, and if we can do that, we can put it in the record books," he said.
His main concern, he indicated, is consistency and settling on a hot-track tune-up. That's why, he said, "We didn't really get after it" -- meaning he and his crew weren't pushing the car to get a specific elapsed time.
He said he thought his Dodge would run a 6.58-second pass -- quicker than some of the competition's better E.T.s in the Saturday heat. "So," Johnson said, "we didn't run as good as we thought we could. The track was not giving up very good 60-foots, and we missed it a little down low."
The toastier temperature "changes the set-up of the car big-time," he said. "When it gets this hot, you have to compensate a lot. You have to take a lot of aggressiveness out of it."
Besides, his team had to replace another motor Saturday, which makes the third Hemi they've gone through.
Johnson will be trying to preserve his points lead and pad it as much as possible Sunday, knowing two more races remain before the Countdown fields are set and the six-race playoff kicks off in mid-September at Charlotte.
LOOKING FOR ANOTHER - Ron Capps wants another Funny Car victory at Seattle. He has done it from the No. 16 position before, and he's eager to try to win the O'Reilly Northwest Nationals from the No. 1 spot Sunday.
The NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger will have the privilege, after no one (not even he) could top his 4.119-second elapsed time from his 298.47-mph pass Friday on the Pacific Raceways 1,000-foot course.
He joined Spencer Massey atop the leaderboard Saturday to give Don Schumacher Racing a nitro-class coup.
While Capps has won twice here in his National Hot Rod Association career, including in Roger Primm's Top Fuel dragster in 1995, he also wants to win for crew chief Rahn Tobler and assistant crew chief John Collins.
To do that, he knows, it's always a terrific idea to let the crew chiefs get plenty of rest the night before eliminations. Tobler and Collins should get that, thanks to their cautious approach Saturday in an uncharacteristically nasty heat wave for normally moderate Seattle.
"Rahn experimented a little today," Capps said, "and it put out a cylinder in the first session." So they took the safe approach on the final run, and Capps said, "It's a bummer. We could have gone for low E.T. of the session [which would have come with more bonus points]. But he was trying to be sure it didn’t drop a cylinder again. And it did go down there nice and clean.
"Saturday, if you can go down the track, no matter what, on eight cylinders, it makes the crew chiefs sleep a little easier Saturday night," he said.
Capps said he'll need to have a fresh mind for eliminations, first because the track is tricky, and secondly, because the No. 16 qualifier can pull off an upset. He knows, because he did that here, too.
"This is a demanding track for drivers and crew chiefs," he said. "Down-track there's still a few small bumps. That's OK -- it gives the place a little bit of character. It demands that you be on your game as a driver. If you allow those bumps to move you out of the groove you're in trouble on a hot track."
He said he should be prepared for the heat, emphasizing that "It was by no means a cool night session Friday when he posted the 4.119-second E.T. that turned out to be quickest.
Capps will face Jeff Diehl in the opening round Sunday. And that is what he knows he needs to pay attention to, rather than the possibility of swiping the points lead form Robert Hight. It could happen if Hight loses his first match-up Sunday and Capps wins the race, gaining 100 points.
"I've learned you never look past your next opponent," Capps said. "That can be tempting, but when you do you are likely to stub your toe."
He didn't say he was looking past lower-qualified part-time racer Gary Densham last Sunday at Sonoma, but he did lose to Densham in the first round. And a repeat performance could put a serious dent in Capps' chance to move past Hight and grab 20 extra bonus points at the beginning of the Countdown.
Theories about the weather, the racetrack, the opponent, scenarios that could unfold all are distractions. Perhaps the best advice for Capps would be to give himself what he helped give his crew chiefs: a decent night's sleep.
PREPARING FOR SUNDAY - Top Fuel's Spencer Massey rode out his 3.837-second elapsed time at 319.60 mph from Friday evening to claim his third top-qualifying position of the season as the fields are set for the National Hot Rod Association's O'Reilly Northwest Nationals.
Massey said it was mission accomplished Saturday for the Don Schumacher-owned FRAM/Prestone Dragster team at Pacific Raceways near Seattle.
In trying to determine how their points-leading dragster might behave in tomorrow's race-day conditions -- expected to be hot with temperatures possibly topping 90 degrees for the second straight day -- crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler coaxed a 3.926-second E.T. and a 3.893 follow-up from it Saturday.
"We didn't want to take a chance it's spin the tires. We wanted to get data. We got data," Massey said. "Now we have a race car that can go down the track."
Massey also has a seven-point lead on DSR mate Antron Brown. They had entered this event tied for the Top Fuel lead, but because Massey will lead the field and Brown qualified fifth, Massey used qualifying bonus points and his place in Sunday's lineup to pull away, at least for now.
Brown also could become the first driver in any class to sweep the Western Swing twice. He was the most recent one to do it. Pro Stock's Allen Johnson also has a chance to pull off the accomplishment after he, too, won at Denver an Sonoma on the three-races-in-three-weeks grind.
One of Massey's goals Sunday, he said, was to "try to keep Antron from getting that broom."
With Ron Capps' No. 1 qualifying status in Funny Car, DSR claimed both nitro leaders.
Massey, the Sonoma runner-up, will open his quest for a class-best fifth victory against Washington driver Ron Smith, whose oildown at the start of in Saturday's final session caused a 55-minute delay.
Smith is a once-a-year Top Fuel racer, and Massey said, "You've got to watch out for guys like that. We don't want anything to happen for him to be the spoiler."
He reiterated his season-long motto: "Don't beat ourselves."
In order to do that, he wanted to be aware of the factors that are crucial, and of course, this weekend the weather is chief among them. But Massey predicted that the first round could produce some quicker numbers than Saturday qualifying saw because the sun likely won't have take its effect on the racing surface yet.
"We might see low (3.)80s tomorrow, depending on how fast the sun comes out and heats up that racetrack.The first round could be a fast round," he said. "The second round, semis, and finals, thought, it could be a different thing."
But seeing Spencer Massey in the final round would be nothing different at all.
READY AGAINST ROBERT - Johnny Gary will pull his Big O Tires/SpeeDee Dodge alongside points leader Robert Hight at the starting line Sunday morning. It might rekindle unpleasant memories of their first-round meeting at Norwalk. Gray was top qualifier but was unable to make the run when his parachutes deployed during the burnout, then Hight smoked the tires. Gray promised -- himself, mostly -- that wouldn't happen again. "Hey, this is a whole new deal here," Gray said. "And Robert is a good guy, but we want to send him home early. We've got a real good race car with our Big O Tires/SpeeDee Dodge, and we are absolutely capable of winning with it."
He said he was "conservative" but "running in our comfort zone" Friday. But he was downright impressive Saturday with a 4.147 in the first Saturday qualifying session.
"We made a great run in the third qualifying pass," he said. "Rob [crew chief Wendland] has been trying and trying to get this car over center, basically, and it just kept saying, 'We want more power, want more power, want more power.' Well, we felt like we were in real good shape [going into the fourth and final qualifying session], and we didn't feel like we were going to go out there and move up any higher this afternoon.
"We know we can go down the racetrack as fast as anybody out there, so as a team, we made the election to step on it considerably harder and see if we could push it over the edge. Voila, we pushed it over the edge – now we know where to back it up to."
THEY'RE MEETING IN THE FIRST ROUND? - Another example of how tough the Pro Stock competition is this season is the first-round match-up between No.11 qualifier Jeg Coughlin Jr. and No. 6 Jason Line. That pairing represents six series championships.
Coughlin said he's ready with a game plan for his JEGS/Mopar Dodge Avenger. "At the conclusion of four runs, we've learned a couple of things we aren't going to try tomorrow," he said. "We had two good runs in the right lane, but struggled a little in the preferred left lane. It's just the way it ended up." He also said, "We're trying to get the car to pep up a little bit. We want to try and get it going better in the first 200 feet. During Q4, which was our warmest track conditions of the weekend, we had one of our more aggressive setups on the weekend. We'll study our data and put together a combination that we can build on and go from there."
Coughlin needs a strong showing Sunday as he has several close rivals for one of the final three places in the Countdown.
"There's a lot on the line the next few races," Coughlin said. "The Countdown is designed for drama, excitement, and emotion. There's six or seven of us fighting for three spots. There's going to be a couple of teams not happy at the end of this, but we intend on having our names above that line. It's going to be a good fight to the end, starting this weekend. We're looking forward to that Countdown."
Line, meanwhile, seemed to be less concerned about Coughlin than he did about his Camaro's capabilities and how to draw them out of the car.
"Today’s performance was really not what I was looking for," Line said Saturday evening "Although we ran closer to the top of the pack today, we really didn't make what I would consider a great run. Having said that, it's nothing that can't be undone, although at this stage, we really need to keep moving forward. The performance is in there somewhere, and it's up to us to find it. I know there is a lot left in this Summit Racing Camaro, and if we're going to repeat as winners here in Seattle, we'll need every aspect of this program to perform at its very best."
NOT MUCH MOVEMENT - Washingtonian J.R. Carr, a potato farmer from Pasco, found some extra performance and moved up two places in the Pro Stock lineup, from 16th to 14th. Otherwise, the field remained the same Saturday as it was Friday.
In the third overall Funny Car session, Bob Tasca made the biggest move, gaining seven positions. He had been last among the 18 entrants in both Friday sessions, but got into the field at No. 11. That's where he stayed, setting up an all-Ford pairing against John Force Racing's Mike Neff. In that same session, points leader Robert Hight dropped two positions and John Force and Courtney Force each dropped a spot in the order, although all three improved their times.
The Top Fuel class shuffled a few drivers at the bottom of the ladder, but the top 12 stayed the same.
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - FIRST DAY IN THE BOOKS WITH STRONG PERFORMANCES
SQUEAKY TWEET GETS THE GREASE? - The most vocal tweeter gets the attention.
It has turned out that way for Don Schumacher Racing's Ron Capps.
Capps got attention -- and, he indicated, maybe some criticism -- for reacting to the substandard condition of part of the racing surface
During last year's O'Reilly Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways at Kent, Wash., south of Seattle, the NAPA Dodge Charger complained via the social medium Twitter that the concrete was in shambles. The National Hot Rod Association fixed it overnight, and this year the sanctioning body and the Fiorito family that owns the facility have worked together to present the safest and nicest surface they could.
And Capps is one of the first to applaud the efforts after grabbing the tentative No. 1 qualifying position in the second session Friday with a 4.119-second elapsed time on the 1,000-foot course at 298.47 mph.
He said he thinks the old concrete might have produced E.T.s in the 4.19- or 4.20- second range on a day with warm, un-Seattle-like temperatures the racers saw Friday. He guessed the previous racing surface might have yielded a best time of 4.15 or 4.16.
"It was so sketchy . . . old -- and last year when I backed up, I tweeted the little pieces [of the track] were coming up on my tire. It got to be a question of performance, and then you started to wonder safety-wise if it was going to be OK," Capps said.
"What a great job the family did in putting that new concrete. We’ve been on them pretty hard to make improvements on the track, and I was pretty vocal last year with my Twitter. Got in a little bit of trouble [chuckle] but the track was peeling up," Capps said.
"Every year we come here and they try to make as many changes as they can. You can’t ask for more than what they did this year," he said. "We love coming here, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a race here every year. Now, if the track cools off we will see those outstanding runs."
That isn’t likely, with weather forecasts calling for temperatures to rise near 90 degrees Saturday and Sunday.
"We're probably not going to see those temperatures. It’s probably going to stay pretty hot for the next two days which is OK by me," Capps said. "[Crew chief Rahn] Tobler has a pretty good handle on a hot track."
Still, Capps can hope, for he'd like the bonus points that would come with earning his second top-qualifying position of the season and 13th of his career.
"Talk about mojo . . . I didn’t expect to get low E.T. Cruz [early leader Pedregon] threw that 4.12 out in the first session," he said.
Again he praised the track-improvement efforts and credited that for his performance Friday.
"Heck of a job -- because that new concrete was the difference. You could tell by the runs the Funny Cars were making," Capps said. "Our (4).11, some .12s and a bunch of .15s and .16s . . . that’s outstanding. The track was 120-degrees-plus. Hat’s off to them for making improvements.
We’ll see what happens Sunday," Capps said. "I love coming here. It's been a good place since my rookie year."
Since and Tobler joined forces between the Las Vegas and Charlotte races this April and reeled off six consecutive final-round appearances, Capps has been cutting into points leader Robert Hight's margin. Now he's having some fun with it all, knowing he might be causing extra concern for his friend and on-track rival.
"Robert [Hight] and I are good friends, and it’s good to have goals," Capps said. "[ESPN2 reporter] Gary Gerould came over and [asked] 'Are you going to try and catch him?' He pointed out 12 rounds and 81 points, and it didn’t sound so good when he said it that way. I liked it better when they said three races left. It sounds like you have more time. If we can, we can. He’s going to have to struggle a little bit.
"It's not that big of a deal, except for the extra 20 points is important," he siad. "It’s not the end of the world if we don’t. It’s fun to have the carrot in front of you.
"I have all the respect in the world for Robert and Jimmy Prock. I get up to race those guys like no other. When I race them in qualifying like I did there, I like having them right alongside of me," Capps said. "I know Robert loves having me. We just do our deal, no games. It’s going to be fun. If they can hiccup and we do like we did the last few races, it’s going to be fun to get some press, at least."
And he can create his own with some more Twitter posts.
SMOKIN' HOT - Spencer Massey has been in a bit of a battle with Don Schumacher Racing colleague Antron Brown. Brown beat Massey in the Top Fuel final round last Sunday at Sonoma, Calif., to muscle in on a share of Massey's points lead.
But during Friday's second session of qualifying for the National Hot Rod Association's O'Reilly Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways near Seattle, Massey found himself in a skirmish with their other DSR mate, Tony Schumacher, in the U.S. Army Dragster.
Massey, in the FRAM/Prestone Dragster, and Schumacher ran identical 3.837-second elapsed times on the 1,000-foot course, both nicking early leader Steve Torrence's time (3.838) by one-thousandth of a second.
Massey got the provisional top-qualifying honors by virtue of speed. He posted a 319.60-mph speed -- best in the class -- to outdo Schumacher's 318.02.
With the bonus points (while Brown fared no better than fifth Friday), Massey moved back into the lead in the standings by three points.
He also gave DSR some more bragging rights, as Funny Car teammate own the other nitro-class lead overnight. DSR provided all finalists last Sunday in the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes, guaranteeing the organization its 188th and 189th victories.
"This feels awesome. This is what we try and do whenever we come to every race," Massey said afterward. "To go No. 1 on the second run is awesome. It tells you how well our FRAM/Prestone team has been doing lately."
Alluding to the Sonoma results, he said, "We made it to the final and got beat by our teammate Antron Brown. Now we barely qualified a little better than our other teammate, Tony Schumacher.
"We all three have our Don Schumacher Racing cars. We all have the technology behind us. These cars should be running as close as they have lately. It shows you how well our entire program is put together," Massey said.
If only he could find some extra Seattle mojo, some Pacific Northwest magic, Massey would be all set.
"I've never done well enough to reach a Top Fuel final here," the Fort Worth native said. "The first time I ever made it to a final in any class was in Top Alcohol Dragster here in 2006. I have a little bit of history here and would love to get a final round here.
"I want to capitalize and try to stay No. 1 in points. We want to try that going into the Countdown. We have an agenda and it's to stay No. 1."
The heat and worse fro him, the sun, caused him some discomfort Friday, he said.
"I don't know the track temp, but I know my body temp was high. I'm sweating trying to get out of my stuff," Massey said. "I tell you what was really bad – the sun. I could barely see the groove for the glare on the track. I'm glad I have my little visor on top [of my helmet]. That was blocking the sun all the time.
"It's just something you have to deal with in drag racing. There's going to be sun, and it is going to be shining on the track," he said. "That's what makes you a good driver. You have to have good eyesight to keep that in the groove going 3.83s."
He's keeping his fingers crossed from some cooling but that also could jeopardize his No. 1 status. Whatever the temperature might be in the first of two final qualifying sessions Saturday, the only number that matters to him is the one that tells his starting order for Sunday's eliminations.
"Tomorrow when we run, the first session could be cooler," he said. "Obviously we could be bumped down a little bit. We could be bumped down by our car. Yes, there's a chance it could happen. Hopefully we'll stay No. 1."
Either way, Spencer Massey definitely is hot.
BUSINESS AS USUAL - Allen Johnson juggles a number of businesses back home in Greeneville, Tenn., including several service station-mini marts, warehouses, pawn shop, and hair salon.
The East Tennessee State University graduate approaches his National Hot Rod Association Pro Stock career using the principles he learned in college and has used for success in his 9-5 life.
It seemed only natural that Johnson would speak like a community business leader or even a banker Friday at Pacific Raceways near Seattle after becoming the provisional No. 1 qualifier for the O'Reilly Northwest Nationals.
He drove the Team Mopar/J&J Racing Dodge Avenger to a 6.554-second elapsed time at 211.66 mph in the first session that held up as the quickest and fastest of the class. If no one can top his E.T. in two Saturday sessions, Johnson will have his sixth in a row, ninth of the season, and 27th of his career.
“We ended 2010 with five No. 1 qualifiers in a row. We were very inconsistent on Sunday," Johnson said. "Now, we’ve put together a business plan for this year with personnel and things in place to be more consistent on Sunday. It’s paid dividends."
A business plan . . . How practical for the Pro Stock points leader.
That's exactly how Johnson wants to conduct himself as the Countdown to the Championship approaches. After this race and the ones at Brainerd, Minn., and Indianapolis, the six-race playoff will start in September at Charlotte.
"We’re just taking it round by round," Johnson said. "The Mopar Dodge Avenger is strong, bad to the bone. The crew is hitting on all eight cylinders. Everybody is hyped and focused."
Johnson, like Antron Brown in the Top Fuel class, has the chance to sweep the so-called Western Swing. He has won the Mopar Mile High Nationals at Denver and the Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma, Calif., and all that stands between him and being the second Pro Stock driver to accomplish that is a victory Sunday here.
"You’d think the sweep talk might unglue us or make us nervous. Believe it or not, everyone is having fun and enjoying the highs, because there are certainly a lot more lows out there in drag racing," Johnson said.
He can’t help but be business-like, though. "I’m taking it round by round and remaining focused," he said, almost as if he were coaching himself to remember to stay calm.
He did allow himself to ay, "I love the last three tracks I’ve been at."
However, what's probably more exciting to this veteran who has the best chance of his career to win the championship, Johnson has a chance to be the quickest driver in every session of every race of the Countdown.
"That’s our focus right now. We have the ability to do it, and we want to build those bonus points every qualifying pass," he said. "Of course, you do that and you’re No. 1 and you get more points. That's 20 points. If we can learn to do that and stay consistent through the Countdown doing that, how big is that going to be?"
Overall, Johnson said he thinks favorably about Seattle.
"The last few years here we’ve done well, although we stunk it up last year. For the most part, we’ve done well in Seattle. I love the views."
The view from the top always is the most impressive.
LOW CAR COUNT - The car counts barely covered the grids in the pro classes. Both the Top Fuel and Pro Stock classes has exactly 16 to fill their fields, and the Funny Car class has 18 entries. Todd Lesenko and Bob Tasca must get onto the list of 16 -- they were 17th and 18th, respectively, at the end of Friday qualifying.
NO RECORDS - In contrast to last Friday's opening rounds of qualifying at Sonoma, no Pacific Raceways records bit the dust.
SCARED TO LOOK - Steve Torrence praised his Capco Contractors Dragster team, saying "Really, these guys have worked their tails off. I think everybody has had their head down and been working so hard to get where we're at. We're kind of scared to stop and slow down and look up." If they had done that after Friday's first session, they would have seen their team was at the top of the order. Torrence will start Saturday's qualifying from the No. 3 position.
NEW TUNE-UP EXCITES HAGAN - Matt Hagan and crew chief Tommy DeLago tapped into the Funny Car talent pool at Don Schumacher Racing and found all kinds of help and information that enabled Hagan to take the Aaron's Dodge Charger to the final round at Sonoma after a mostly bleak season.
"It is our first race with this tune-up combination and we go to the final round. How cool is that?" Hagan said.
DeLago credited his fellow crew chiefs. "We owe a lot of thanks to Rahn Tobler, John Collins, Todd Smith, and Terry Snyder for helping us," he said. "For whatever reason, we just couldn't get the tune-up in the car that worked the last two seasons to work this year. Obviously, our other cars at DSR have been running really well all year, so we had to be open-minded. We switched over to a few things they use. We couldn't have done it without them."
The momentum carried over to Friday qualifying. Hagan finished fourth in the order in the first session and was fifth overnight. (If he stays in the top half of the ladder Saturday, it would be the sixth time in 15 races he will start eliminations with lane choice.)
The reigning champion improved to 12th place in the standings, 91 points out of 10th place with just two more events before the top 10 is set for the Countdown.
TRACK IS IN GREAT SHAPE - Funny Car driver-tuner Mike Neff gave credit to the NHRA Safety Safari for its track prep and to Pacific Raceways for giving racers a surface that was not that much different form last week's lanes at Sonoma.
"The track is really good here," Neff said after taking the No. 6 spot overnight. "They put new concrete in and ran the tire machine and prepped it and sprayed it. And this is the best that I’ve ever seen the Seattle race track here today. That’s exciting, because last week conditions were really good in Sonoma. That race track is in great shape, and so far after today it looks like this track is in as good of shape as Sonoma was. That’s encouraging and even though the conditions are going to be hot tomorrow; the weather is going to be hot, track is going to be hot, I still think you’re going to see a lot of good runs based on the shape of the track.”
BEST SURPRISE HERE IS NO SURPRISE - Ron Capps surprised daughter Taylor for her 16th birthday last week with a limousine and a swing by a Northern California airport to pick up her cousin, Ashley Fuqua of Pomona, Calif., then on to a Kelly Clarkson concert. "Taylor gave me a look like she expected it the limousine," her Funny Car driver dad said, "but when we stopped at the airport and picked her cousin up Taylor was crying she was so happy. She kept telling me and [wife/mom] Shelley how much she loved us." He said when they arrived at the concert, "she went nuts."
But his NAPA Dodge Charger surprised him by losing traction and smoking the tires in the first round against lower-qualified part-time racer Gary Densham. "It just rattled the car for a long ways, and I finally gave it a quick pedal but it was already in trouble. We were kind of scratching our heads," Capps said, confident that "Rahn will figure it out."
Whatever the problem was, Tobler indeed did fix it -- enough for Capps to take the provisional No. 10 slot Friday, then jump to the provisional No. 1 spot in the later session.
UNDERDOG IN THE TOP 10 - Mustang driver Mark Wolfe, a truck driver from Marysville, Wash., a couple of hours north of Pacific Raceways on Interstate 5, made his quickest pass of the season to grab Pro Stock's early No. 10 spot with a 6.645-second elapsed time at 207.62 mph. He raced in his first 2012 event last weekend at Sonoma, Calif., where he was the odd man out among 17 entrants. Wolfe's story captured hearts here last year at the O'Reilly Northwest Nationals, when he qualified No. 1 in the Comp Eliminator class. Drag-racing fans learned he isn't homeless but once lived in a campground, then was bunking in a small, loft-like storage room in the back of his dad's trucking-company shop. He opted to sink every penny he had in his '96 Thunderbird. He got some fresh funding and is able to compete for a second season in Pro Stock on a limited basis.
ENJOYING THE SPA - Pro Stock's Mike Edwards, who nailed down his Countdown berth at Sonoma, said, "Now we can maybe try a couple things and see if the car responds in a positive direction and not hurt in the long-term program. Now we are focused on getting the best race car we can have and go into the six-race dash with as much momentum as possible," he said.
Whatever he does at Pacific Raceways, it seems to turn out all right for the Oklahoma driver. He has a .750 winning percentage at this track and three victories (in 1996, 1997, and 2009). "I don't know if it is the cooler temperatures, the great scenery, or just my comfort with the Northwest, but I always feel relaxed at the Seattle race. I think that goes a long ways in producing good results," Edwards said.
Well, Mike Edwards, welcome to tree-ringed, oxygen-rich Pacific Raceways, the facility that Bob Wilber, public-relations representative for Funny Car's Tim Wilkerson, once called "a spa for race cars." Edwards sailed with ease into the No. 3 early position Friday with a 6.573-second E.T. and 210.97-mph speed.
The fourth-place driver of the K&N/Penhall/Interstate Pontiac said his goal for the Western Swing was to be "more consistent each run down the track. And that philosophy has really shown in qualifying but not as bright in eliminations."
Edwards enters the event in fourth place, just a little more than 200 points off Allen Johnson's pace.
THURSDAY NOTEBOOK - RACING IN THE GREAT NORTHWEST
COUNTDOWN CHANCES - Six drivers have a chance this weekend to clinch sports in the Countdown to the Championship.
In Top Fuel, Steve Torrence will clinch if he qualifies, and Doug Kalitta need to win, set the national elapsed-time record, qualify No. 1, and earn qualifying bonus points and see Clay Millican fail to qualify in order to clinch.
Depending on qualifying position and bonus points three Funny Car drivers could join Robert Hight and Ron Capps on the Countdown list. Jack Beckman could clinch by qualifying by advancing to second round. Mike Neff could clinch by going to semifinals but definitely will clinch with a runner-up finish. Winning the race or possibly earning a runner-up finish could put Johnny Gray in.
Pro Stock's Erica Enders could clinch by advancing to the second round (depending on qualifying position and bonus points) or will clinch by advancing to the semifinals.
Already Countdown-bound are Top Fuel's Spencer Massey, Antron Brown, and Tony Schumacher; Pro Stock's Greg Anderson, Jason Line, Allen Johnson, Mike Edwards, and Vincent Nobile; and Pro Stock Motorcycle's Eddie Krawiec, Andrew Hines, Hector Arana Jr., and Hector Arana Sr.
GIVING 'EM WHAT-4 AND PILING UP POINTS - Tim Wilkerson said he isn't especially trying to record his fourth consecutive Funny Car victory at Seattle's Pacific Raceways. He said he just wants to get enough points to break into the top 10. "It's all about the points right now, not winning one particular race four years in a row," the Levi, Ray & Shoup driver said. With 12 rounds of racing left before the playoff field is established, Wilkerson trails No. 10 John Force in the standings by 69 points and 82 behind No. 9 Bob Tasca.
"Can you imagine being outside the playoffs and looking up there to see Force in the 10th spot?" Wilkerson said. "You're talking about the greatest Funny Car driver in the history of our sport, and one of the coolest customers to ever turn on a staging bulb. There's no way for us to get lucky and back into this deal. We have to earn our way in by winning some rounds. If we don't, then that's how it's going to be.
"To be honest, if we came in here in something like fourth place for the playoffs, with three or four wins under our belts, then we probably would be thinking ahead to getting back to the Seattle winners circle for the fourth time in a row, but our focus is much more one step at a time right now," he said. "There's no big picture at this point, no time for looking too far ahead. The most important thing on our plate right now is getting qualified. After we do that, the most important thing will be winning round one. That's the mountain we're in front of, not winning the race. We have to win a round, and if we do that we'll see if we can win some more."
The Springfield, Ill., veteran has it all in perspective.
"As much as we want to get a rally going here and move up, it's also not the whole world to us. The truth is we may have three races left in the regular season, but we have nine left in the full season, and that's nine chances to win races, serve our sponsors well, and have some fun," Wilkerson said. "The good thing about the Countdown is that we get to keep playing, and we don't have to go home like non-playoff teams in other sports. If we make the Countdown, that will be outstanding and that's definitely our goal, but if we don't we're still going to be out there to win every round we're in."
THIS TEAM LOVES SEATTLE - The Tequila Patron Toyota Camry team can't help but love Seattle. It's where driver Alexis DeJoria earned the first national-even victory of her career last year, in the Top Alcohol Dragster class. Her crew chief, Del Worsham, also won here last July in the Top Fuel class. Jim Oberhofer, vice-president of Kalitta Motorsports, said, "All the stars are aligned for it to be a successful weekend for Team Patrün. The Patrün Toyota Camry has been very consistent, and we ran some great numbers in Sonoma. Both of our Funny Cars [including Jeff Arend's] have been working well off of each other and Alexis has been doing a great job with her reaction times." When she won here in 2011, DeJoria didn't have daughter Bella by her side. This time she does, and together they enjoyed sightseeing in Seattle, particularly Pike Place Market.
NEW BABY - Steve Torrence's crew spent Tuesday getting acquainted with Pacific Raceways, while he went to nearby Puyallup, Wash., to visit with renowned Top Fuel chassis builder Brad Hadman and see how his latest version of the Torrence Racing/Capco Contractors Inc. Dragsters dragster is coming along. "The car we're using has been running well, but we want to make sure we are prepared for the upcoming Countdown to the Championship," fourth-place Torrence said. He will clinch a Countdown berth by simply qualifying this weekend.
NEW DRAGSTERS SHINE - Not everyone likes to see someone sweep the Western Swing. "Antron [Brown] and his team are doing awesome. That's two in a row," his DSR Top Fuel mate Spencer Massey said. "They're going to go to Seattle to try to get the sweep, and we're going to do everything we can to stop them." If Massey's performance from Sonoma continues, he has a great chance to do that. In the FRAM/Prestone Dragster, Massey was runner-up and set both low E.T. and top speed of the meet there in Northern California. Brown's victory gave him a share of the Top Fuel points lead. They were driving their new DSR-built dragsters for only the second race, and Massey said, "We were eager to see what our new car would do at sea level, and it showed it can run at Sonoma. With all the data we've been getting, we know the car likes the good air so we're giving it more power." Said Brown, "The car is just paying dividends right now." He'll talk about his Matco Tool/ Aaron's Dragster, but he's mum about his chances to become the first driver in any class to sweep the Western Swing. "Learning from 2009, we'll just take the same approach," he said. "We didn't take anything for granted then, and we never looked past the next round of racing. We're just focused on the here and now. We're only going to worry about qualifying."
MAGNIFICENT SEVEN TO BECOME EIGHT OR NINE? - Only seven drivers have broken out the traditional broom in the WINNERS Circle celebration at the end of the Western Swing. Antron Brown, who could become the first to do it twice, and Pro Stock's Allen Johnson are the latest in line for the distinction. Those who have achieved the feat are Joe Amato (1991), John Force (1994), Cory McClenathan (1997), Larry Dixon (2003), Greg Anderson (2004), and Tony Schumacher (2008).
On three previous occasions, multiple drivers chased the goal. When Force did it in 1994, Scott Kalitta and Darrell Alderman each came up short in their quests. When McClenathan swept Top Fuel in 1997, Jim Yates just missed becoming the first Pro Stock driver to do it. And in 2003, when Dixon accomplished the feat, Force missed the chance to become the first driver to sweep the Swing twice.
Johnson's Team Mopar/J&J Racing Dodge Avenger is coming on like gangbusters. He leads the points, has been the No. 1 qualifier for the past five events, and has tied Greg Anderson for the class lead in victories (four).
"We're learning how to win, round by round by round," Johnson said after beating Anderson in the Sonoma final round. "We're taking it one round at a time. We've got an awesome race car and a great team making decisions. It's a sweet feeling, knowing every time you go up there you are going to be the fastest car. You just have to be consistent as a driver. I was able to do that (in Denver and Sonoma), and hopefully I can carry that on into Seattle."
FORCES 'GETTING HEADS ON STRAIGHT' - After a little R&R at Lake Tahoe with her family this past week, Courtney Force is ready to take to the track where she earned the first Wally trophy of her career, in Top Alcohol Dragster in 2009. It's also where, in 2010, she used her skills to avoid disaster when the right rear tire exploded and destroyed a portion of her Ford Racing Top Alcohol Dragster's rear wing. Today she's a Funny Car driver and national spokesperson for Ford Motor Company's Driving Skills for Life initiative -- and the leading candidate for the Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award that recognizes the NHRA's top pro rookie. The mini-vacation, she said, "was really time for me and my dad to get our heads on straight and mentally prepare for Seattle." Dad John Force has won seven times -- more than any other racer in any class -- at Seattle. But he is struggling to stay in the top 10, and she is treading water at No. 7 after losing a position at Sonoma. Courtney Force, said, "I grew up coming out to the Western Swing and watching my dad race so to actually be out here and be a part of it in my own Traxxas Ford Mustang Funny Car is definitely an exciting feeling. I love being out here, I love being back in California, but you know, I didn't have very good luck in California. I did get my career best run out here with a 4.05, so we definitely have a good car going into Seattle. We're feeling a little more confident. I'm really hoping this is my lucky track." Her father, who has won seven times in 14 years but hasn't done so at Pacific Raceways since 2004, said, "We'll be ready for Seattle. But the competition is tough. It was good that some of the cars behind us went out early last week, but if we're going to make the Countdown, we've got to help ourselves. We can't count on somebody else messin' up. Robert [Hight] won the championship in 2009 from No. 10, so we know you can do it. Whoever gets the hot hand, can win it all."
SOUVENIR HUNTER - Jack Beckman won the Funny Car trophy at Seattle in 2007, and what he remembers most is that it was son Jason's first time to be in winners circle photos. "Jason was 3 months old. We have a picture of him sitting on our racecar next to the Wally and the Wally was almost taller than him," the proud papa and driver of the Valvoline NextGen Dodge Charger said. Jason is now and is capable of holding the Wally, should his dad win it again Sunday. But Jason Beckman will not be attending this race, so his dad is trying to bring him a special souvenir of his trip to the Pacific Northwest. Beckman was runner-up here last year, as Tim Wilkerson blazed to his third straight Seattle victory. "We won't be relying on some of the racing luck that we got last weekend in Sonoma. We'll go up and go back to swinging like we did in Denver and earn our wins," Beckman, who kicked off the Western swing with an outstanding weekend and triumph at Bandimere Speedway, said. He added, "I'm all for having one more trophy to make Seattle bookends after this weekend."
COUGHLIN CREEPING UP - Jeg Coughlin Jr. finally made it into the Pro Stock Top 10 with his JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Avenger, and he said he thinks he could be "even creeping up a place to two" in the standings this weekend. He knows his hold on the 10th and final place for the Countdown is tenuous. He's nine points behind No. 9 Ron Krisher and only one point ahead of Vieri Gaines and Larry Morgan, who are tied for 11th.
Coughlin has improved since Eddie Guarnaccia came aboard following the DNQ at Englishtown, N.J., that left him in 13th place. "We've made a lot of the right kind of improvements in the last couple of races," Coughlin said. "Man, I couldn't feel better behind the wheel right now. I feel like we're knocking on the door for some round wins and maybe a race win by the time we get the Countdown started in a few weeks." Coughlin won here in 2002, 10 years ago. But he said conditions could be conducive for stellar numbers if the weather cooperates. "If Mother Nature shows up in Seattle the way she can with nice, cool, overcast conditions, NHRA can make a parking lot hook-up. We could see some 6.40s and low 6.50s. We could also see temperatures close to 90, and it might slow us down some. Either way, we'll be ready." He'll drive his Dodge Challenger Drag Pak entry in the Stock Eliminator class this weekend, too.
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